Weather Folklore

Every February 2, groundhogs across the country are enlisted to predict whether we will have six more weeks of Winter or an early Spring. Punxsatawney Phil is the most famous of the bunch and he says that this year we will have six more weeks of Winter.

In Wisconsin, Wynter saw his shadow at the Milwaukee County Zoo. And while Jimmy, the Sun Prairie, WI groundhog also saw his shadow, he also taught the Mayor of the town not to get too close.

According to folklore, if it is cloudy when a groundhog emerges from its burrow on this day, then spring will come early; if it is sunny, the groundhog will supposedly see its shadow and retreat back into its burrow, and the weather will persist for six more weeks. The celebration, which began as a Pennsylvania German custom in southeastern and central Pennsylvania in the 18th and 19th centuries, has its origins in ancient European weather lore, wherein a badger or sacred bear is the prognosticator as opposed to a groundhog. The custom is thought to relate to Candlemas day, the day on which, according to the Germans, the Groundhog peeps out of his winter quarters and if he sees his shadow he pops back for another six weeks nap, but if the day be cloudy he remains out, as the weather is to be moderate.

An old Scottish poem states:
If Candle-mas Day is bright and clear,
There’ll be two winters in the year.

If Candle mas be fair and bright,
Winter has another flight.
If Candlemas brings clouds and rain,
Winter will not come again.

This particular piece of weather folklore is not an accurate predictor of weather.  It is also just one of many ways that people predicted the weather before meteorologists started improving on our forecasting ability.

Some Popular Weather Folklore

Weathervane_in_Dayton,_IndianaWeather folklore is often dismissed as nothing more than a grab bag of sayings, old wives’ tales, legends, and superstitions. In other words, folklore is considered the opposite of science. But folklore and science have more in common than you might imagine. What we call scientific method is based on observation and evidence –  and so is a great deal of weather folklore.

Some fall/winter sayings include:

  • When leaves fall early, autumn and winter will be mild; when leave fall later, winter will be severe.
  • Flowers blooming in late autumn are a sign of a bad winter.
  • A warm November is the sign of a bad winter.
  • Thunder in the fall foretells a cold winter.

Other Popular Weather Folklore


Crickets can indeed serve as thermometers. Tradition says that if you count the cricket’s chirps for 14 seconds and then add 40, you will obtain the temperature in Fahrenheit at the cricket’s location.


This well known saying is derived from the observation that March begins in winter and ends in spring. In northern latitudes temperatures are generally higher by the end of the month than during its first weeks. We may also look to the heavens to determine an explanation, the constellation of Leo, the lion, dominates the skies at the beginning of the month and the constellation Aries, the ram or lamb, prevails as the month winds down.


Calm conditions, especially with clear skies, indicate the dominance of a high-pressure system. When they are absent or weak, precipitation and cloud formation are much less likely. But let’s not forget the saying “the calm before the storm”. Thunderstorms frequently develop in environments where winds are low. Calm conditions can also occur on very cold days with clear skies. People shivering with the cold, might not think that a still wind bodes no ill.


Windows with wood frames tend to stick when the air is full of moisture. The moisture swells the wood, making windows and doors more difficult to budge. By the same token, salt is very effective at absorbing moisture, so it clumps together rather than pouring out. As moisture collects in the air, there is a greater likelihood of precipitation.


A halo appears around the moon or the sun when ice crystals at high altitudes refract the moonlight (or sunlight). That is a good indication that moisture is descending to lower altitudes, where it is likely to take the form of precipitation. A halo is a more reliable indicator of storms in warmer months than during winter months.


The moon in this instance is supposed to predict precipitation because it is perceived as being in the shape of a bowl, which means that it is filling with water or snow. If it’s “horns” are tipped to the side, some people believe that precipitation will descend.


The sun does not draw water. This saying describes an optical illusion in which the sun’s rays alternate with bands of shadow to produce a fanlike effect. Those shadowy patches are dense clouds, some of which are thin enough to allow sunlight to reach earth. However, the saying is not without merit. If the sun is obscured in the west, it means that moisture-laden clouds have gathered there, and it’s quite possible that rain will follow if the temperature is favorable for the condensation of that moisture.


This is one of the most famous weather sayings – and it’s wrong. Lightning not only can strike the same place twice, but it seems to prefer high locations. New York City’s Empire State Building, for example, is struck about 25 times every year.


Tornadoes do occur in the mountains. Damage from a tornado has been reported above 10,000 feet. Tornadoes have barreled across mountain chains including the Appalachians, the Rockies, and the Sierra Nevada. In 1987, an especially violent tornado crossed the Continental Divide in Yellowstone National Park.

There are hundreds of sayings and expressions that have become a part of weather folklore. Feel free to let us know if you have any favorites.

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What Exactly Is a Nor’easter?

The East coast is readying itself for heavy snow, strong winds, and blizzard conditions this week from the New York City metro area up into the Boston metro area, with snow as far south as Washington, D.C.  This storm will likely cause dangerous travel conditions, power outages, and coastal flooding.

March 2014 Nor'easter

March 2014 Nor’easter. Credit: NOAA.

A nor’easter is a cyclonic storm that moves along the east coast of North America. It’s called “nor’easter” because the winds over coastal areas blow from a northeasterly direction. It is defined as NOAA as a strong low pressure system that affects the Mid Atlantic and New England States. It can form over land or over the coastal waters. These winter weather events are notorious for producing heavy snow, rain, and tremendous waves that crash onto Atlantic beaches, often causing beach erosion and structural damage. Wind gusts associated with these storms can exceed hurricane force in intensity. A nor’easter gets its name from the continuously strong northeasterly winds blowing in from the ocean ahead of the storm and over the coastal areas.

Nor’easters may occur any time of the year, but are most frequent and strongest between September and April. These storms usually develop between Georgia and New Jersey within 100 miles of the coastline and generally move north or northeastward.

Nor’easters typically become most intense near New England and the Canadian Maritime Provinces. In addition to heavy snow and rain, nor’easters can bring gale force winds greater than 58 miles per hour. These storms can produce rough seas, coastal flooding and beach erosion.

The East Coast of North America provides an ideal breeding ground for nor’easters.  During winter, the polar jet stream transports cold Arctic air southward across the plains of Canada and the U.S., and eastward toward the Atlantic Ocean, as warm air from the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic tries to move northward. The warm waters of the Gulf Stream help keep the coastal waters relatively mild during the winter, which in turn helps warm the cold winter air over the water. This difference in temperature between the warm air over the water and cold Arctic air over the land is the area where nor’easters are born.

This animation of NOAA GOES-13 satellite imagery from March 5 to March 7, 2013, shows the progression of a cold front from the west associated with a low pressure system that brought snow from Chicago to the Appalachian Mountains. The low merged with a coastal low near the Mid-Atlantic on March 6 and brought more than 18″ of snow from western north Virginia and western Maryland into Pennsylvania, while coastal areas and cities including Washington, D.C. and Baltimore received snow followed by heavy rain. The low is affecting New England on March 7. Credit: NASA GOES Project.

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2014 Was the Warmest Year on Record

Last week NOAA and NASA provided their annual analysis of global climate.  It was no surprise to those following the data that 2014 was the warmest year across global land and ocean surfaces since record keeping began.  This same conclusion has been reached by other organizations also studying climate trends.

Few issues today are as contentious as the topic of global warming, also known as climate change.  Rarely is an issue so widely questioned when there is such a large degree of scientific consensus on the issue. There are political, social, religious, and economic strings attached to this subject that make it such a divisive issue. As this is the case, there are a few facets of the announcement that deserve some attention.

The 2014 Global Temperature Anomalies

2014 Global Significant Weather and Climate Events

2014 Global Significant Weather and Climate Events
Source NOAA

  • The year 2014 was the warmest year across global land and ocean surfaces since records began in 1880. The annually-averaged temperature was 0.69°C (1.24°F) above the 20th century average of 13.9°C (57.0°F), easily breaking the previous records of 2005 and 2010 by 0.04°C (0.07°F). This also marks the 38th consecutive year (since 1977) that the yearly global temperature was above average. Including 2014, 9 of the 10 warmest years in the 135-year period of record have occurred in the 21st century. 1998 currently ranks as the fourth warmest year on record.
  • The 2014 global average ocean temperature was also record high, at 0.57°C (1.03°F) above the 20th century average of 16.1°C (60.9°F), breaking the previous records of 1998 and 2003 by 0.05°C (0.09°F). Notably, ENSO-neutral conditions were present during all of 2014.
  • The 2014 global average land surface temperature was 1.00°C (1.80°F) above the 20th century average of 8.5°C (47.3°F), the fourth highest annual value on record.
Annual Global Temperature 1880 - 2014

Annual Global Temperature 1880 – 2014
Source: NOAA

Not Just the Temperature

There is a strong consensus among climate scientists that global warming is occurring and that it is caused largely by the activities of people. The evidence comes from more than just global temperature readings.

The evidence comes from multiple fields of science. These include but are not limited to:

  • Ice cores records.
  • Tree rings records.
  • Paleontology (e.g. previous adaptations to climate change, the fossil record of extinctions linked to CC, etc.).
  • The migration of plant and animal populations generally uphill or poleward.
  • The spread of various diseases and pests into habitats that did not formerly support them (e.g. predatory crabs moving into the less-cold Arctic Sea).
  • Average global temps of surface thermometers rising over the decades.
  • More high temp records than cold, and that ratio is growing.
  • Satellite observations show more radiant energy entering the Earth’s atmosphere than leaving it.
  • Melting glaciers which are millions of years old.
  • Rising sea temps, rising sea level, migration of sea populations.
  • Prolonged, hotter droughts.
  • More and more record torrential rains and subsequent flooding.
  • Nights warming more than days, winter more than summer, the poles more than the equator.
  • The accounting of industrial carbon exhaust pollution and its expected results matches most of the rise in global temperature. The rest can be accounted for by methane and CO2 released by previously inactive natural processes. Those processes include the thawing of the Arctic tundra and the permafrost.

Plus, these all paint the same picture. That is perhaps the strongest evidence of all.

Ten Indicators of a Warming World

Ten Indicators of a Warming World

Before Jumping on a Bandwagon…

While we have acknowledged that more than data and scientific evidence shape an individual’s stance on climate change, there is one thing that I would ask you to do regardless of your opinion.  That would be to develop at least a basic understanding of the topic at hand. Ask yourself if you really have a basic understanding of the climate.  This can be a very complicated area of investigation, but some of the basics are easily understood.  If you want to contribute to the discussion that should be taking place around this important issue, please consider becoming climate literate.

A climate-literate person:

  • understands the essential principles of Earth’s climate system,
  • knows how to assess scientifically credible information about climate,
  • communicates about climate and climate change in a meaningful way, and
  • is able to make informed and responsible decisions with regard to actions that may affect climate.


Climate LiteracyClick on the image above for an informative brochure about Climate Literacy.

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Why You Need a Weather Radio and a WEA Enabled Mobile Phone

If you already have a weather radio and a Wireless Alert Emergency Alert (WEA) enabled mobile phone then congratulations! You will be warned of an approaching tornado or other severe weather even if it happens in the middle of the night when you’re sleeping. You probably know that these are just as important to your safety as smoke detectors.

If you are unsure about how important these two systems of emergency notification may be to protecting the safety of you and your loved ones, here is some information about their capabilities.

National Weather Radio

AllHazardsNWRNOAA Weather Radio All Hazards (NWR) is a nationwide network of radio stations broadcasting continuous weather information directly from the nearest National Weather Service office. NWR broadcasts official Weather Service warnings, watches, forecasts and other hazard information 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Working with the Federal Communication Commission’s (FCC) Emergency Alert System , NWR is an “All Hazards” radio network, making it your single source for comprehensive weather and emergency information. In conjunction with Federal, State, and Local Emergency Managers and other public officials, NWR also broadcasts warning and post-event information for all types of hazards – including natural (such as earthquakes or avalanches), environmental (such as chemical releases or oil spills), and public safety (such as AMBER alerts or 911 Telephone outages).

Known as the “Voice of NOAA’s National Weather Service,” NWR is provided as a public service by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), part of the Department of Commerce. NWR includes 1025 transmitters, covering all 50 states, adjacent coastal waters, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and the U.S. Pacific Territories. NWR requires a special radio receiver or scanner capable of picking up the signal. Broadcasts are found in the VHF public service band at these seven frequencies (MHz):


What Type of Radio Do I Need?


Look for the Public Alert symbol when choosing an All Hazards Weather Radio

Depending on the information you want to access, and how and where you plan to access the broadcasts, you have many options. There are standalone Weather Radio receivers as well as multi-band/function receivers with the weather band included. If you want to be alerted to Warnings and Watches day or night, a standalone receiver might work best for you. If you just want to be able to tune to in the weather broadcast and do not care about receiving alerts, a general multi-band/function receiver might be better.

Standalone Receivers: Standalone receivers might also come with AM/FM bands, but their primary use will be to receive Weather Radio broadcasts. You can choose between handheld and desktop models, depending on whether you plan to take your radio with you when you go out. There are many choices from a number of manufacturers with prices ranging from around $20 to over $100, depending on the number of features included.

Multi-Band/Function Receivers:
These receivers bundle a number of features. Weather Radio is just one of many frequency bands included. You can find the Weather Radio band included in:

  • AM/FM radios
  • Shortwave receivers
  • CB radios
  • VHF Marine radios
  • Scanners
  • GMRS/FRS 2-way radios
  • Car radios
  • TV/Radio combinations*

See the Resources section of this article for information on some available options.

Specific Area Message Encoding (SAME)

Specific Area Messaging or SAME is the protocol used to encode NWR systems so that your radio will only alert you of weather and other emergencies for the counties  or areas programmed. SAME is also used in the Emergency Alert System. When an NWS office broadcasts a warning, watch or non-weather emergency, it also broadcasts a digital SAME code. This SAME code contains the type of message, counties affected, and message expiration time. NWR radios without the SAME capability alert for emergencies anywhere within the coverage area of the NWR transmitter, typically for several counties, even though the emergency could be well away from the listener.

Mobile Weather Warnings

Imagine this: You’re driving down the highway, humming along to your favorite tunes, when the cell phone stowed in your bag suddenly makes a strange noise. To investigate, you take the next exit and safely pull over to check the screen. Good thing you did: Your phone just alerted you to a tornado a few miles away in the same county you’re driving through.

Sound plausible? It is. This year, America’s wireless industry is rolling out a new nationwide text emergency alert system, called Wireless Emergency Alerts, which will warn you when weather threatens.

The text alert service is free and automatic – there’s no need to sign up or download an app. As long as your cell phone is WEA-capable, you’ll get wireless alerts for the most dangerous types of weather from NOAA’s National Weather Service no matter where you are, just as soon as the new service is available in your area.

NOAA’s NWS will broadcast warnings for weather emergencies that are most dangerous to life and property: tornadoes, flash floods, hurricanes, extreme wind, blizzards and ice storms, tsunamis, and dust storms. (Severe thunderstorm warnings will not be part of the initial rollout of broadcast messages because they are so frequent; however, these will continue to be broadcast by NOAA Weather Radio, media outlets and Internet-based services.)

How weather text alerts work

If you are at home or traveling with your cell phone through an area where a weather warning has been issued, your phone will pick up alerts broadcast by nearby cell towers. Those towers will broadcast the message much like an AM/FM radio station, and cell phones within range will immediately pick up the signal — provided they are WEA-capable. When your phone receives a message, it will alert you with a unique ring tone and vibration.

The message will look like a text, but it’s not a traditional text message most people are used to. This text message will automatically pop up on your cell phone’s screen; you won’t have to open it up to read it.

And there’s more good news: Regardless of where you are, this service will send alerts appropriate to your real-time geographic location. For example, if a person with a WEA-capable phone from New Jersey happens to be in Southern California during and after an earthquake, she will receive an “Imminent Threat Alert” on her device.

Q: What should I do when I receive a message?

It depends. In most cases, these 90-character messages are a “heads up” to prompt you to seek further information about the threat. In the case of an extreme and imminent danger – such as a large tornado in the area – the message will advise you to seek shelter immediately.

Q: Who is behind the text alert system?

The new weather messages are part of the broader Wireless Emergency Alerts initiative – a partnership among the wireless industry, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA. NOAA’s National Weather Service is one of many agencies authorized to send emergency alerts to cell phones through this new system.

These alerts will improve the way the government communicates to the public about hazards that pose a significant threat to life and property, and help people plan for and stay safe when they are at risk for dangerous situations — even in their own homes. You might also receive messages regarding Amber alerts, local hazards (e.g., chemical spills), and even national emergencies.

The ‘fine print’

The Wireless Emergency Alert system relies on “best-effort” networks, so delivery of alerts at a given place and time is not guaranteed. The new alert system is not a replacement for other alert systems, and you should not rely on it as a sole source of emergency information.  A weather alert sent through WEA is intended to notify the public that a warning has been issued and that you should seek additional information. Remember: Not all phones are capable of receiving Wireless Emergency Alerts.

Cell service customers can opt out of weather alerts, but we strongly discourage you from doing so. These weather alerts are a vital public service that ultimately helps America become a more weather-ready nation. Armed with late-breaking weather warnings, people will have the timely information they need to make smart decisions about how to protect themselves, their families, their friends and neighbors, and their personal property.


If you are looking for a weather radio or are interested in a good weather app, Consumer Search provides a great guide for Best Weather Radios and Best Weather Alert Apps.

If you get a weather radio and need help setting it up, Contact Us and we’ll be happy to walk you through the set up.

Winter StormsClick on the image above for an informative brochure about NOAA National Weather Radio.

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Extreme Cold

It’s January and Winter has made itself known after a relatively mild December.  We are in store for some extremely cold temperatures for most of the country over the next few days.  For Southeastern Wisconsin on Wednesday January 7, 2015 at Noon the temperature is forecast to be at around 0° F. When the wind chill is taken into consideration, it’s going to feel like -24° F. That is cold!

NOAA Forecast for Apparent Wind Chill (Apparent Temperatures) at Noon CST on Wednesday January 7, 2015.

NOAA Forecast for Wind Chill (Apparent Temperatures) at Noon CST on Wednesday January 7, 2015.

Wind Chill

Wind Chill is the term used to describe the rate of heat loss on the human body resulting from the combined effect of low temperature and wind. As winds increase, heat is carried away from the body at a faster rate, driving down both the skin temperature and eventually the internal body temperature. While exposure to low wind chills can be life threatening to both humans and animals alike, the only effect that wind chill has on inanimate objects, such as vehicles, is that it shortens the time that it takes the object to cool to the actual air temperature (it cannot cool the object down below that temperature). You can calculate the wind chill if you know both the temperature and wind speed.

Wind Chill Index

Wind Chill Index

Wind Chill

Wind Chill Calculator


Enter a temperature and wind speed:

What the temperature feels like to your body:
Fahrenheit Celsius ° F
mph knots m/s ° C


Safety First

What is important about the wind chill besides feeling colder than the actual air temperature? The lower the wind chill temperature, the greater you are at risk for developing frost bite and/or hypothermia.

Frostbite occurs when your body tissue freezes. The most susceptible parts of the body are fingers, toes, ear lobes, and the tip of the nose. Hypothermia occurs when body core temperature, normally around 98.6°F (37°C) falls below 95°F (35°C). The following table shows how fast frostbite can occur at various wind chill temperatures.

The best way to avoid hypothermia and frostbite is to stay warm and dry indoors. When you must go outside, dress appropriately. Wear several layers of loose-fitting, lightweight, warm clothing. Trapped air between the layers will insulate you. Remove layers to avoid sweating and subsequent chill.

Outer garments should be tightly woven, water repellant, and hooded. Wear a hat, because half of your body heat can be lost from your head. Cover your mouth to protect your lungs from extreme cold. Mittens, snug at the wrist, are better than gloves. Try to stay dry and out of the wind.

Other Tips

Now that you are keeping yourself safe during cold weather, consider those around you.

  • Take care of your pets. Bring your pets inside. They suffer from frostbite and hypothermia just like people. If you take them out, dress them in layers. Don’t forget that their paws can tolerate only limited exposure to cold.
  • Donate unused clothing items like coats or sweatshirts and blankets or other warm bedding. There are people in shelters who need them this week.
  • Check on your elderly or disabled neighbors, relatives, and friends. Make sure they are staying warm.

More Information

Winter StormsClick on the image above for an informative brochure about extreme cold health and safety.

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Most Memorable Weather of 2014

Here are the notable weather events of 2014 that stay in my memory. Feel free to add to this list with your own memorable weather events.

 1. Arctic Cold

January Cold

January started with bitter cold for most of the country and the term “Polar Vortex” was popularized.

The term “Polar Vortex” came into popular usage to describe the cold Arctic air that descended over half of the United States, extending from Wisconsin to Louisiana and to the East . The Great Lakes ice cover reached over 92%, the most seen since 1979. After this cold start, snow and ice continued for parts of the country well into Spring.

2. California Drought

California Drought

The California Drought near its greatest extent to date

The drought in California continued to become the worst in the area in over a millennia. Most of the state was in an exceptional drought state. The West continues to experience drought conditions, even after torrential rains in California in December.

3. April 27- 30, 2014 Tornadoes

April 27-29, 2014 Tornado Outbreak

April 27-29, 2014 Tornado Outbreak

A total of 84 tornadoes over a period of four days were confirmed. Collectively, they resulted in 35 fatalities and over 200 injuries. On April 27, the deadliest tornado of 2014 passed through Mayflower and Vilonia, Arkansas, causing 16 of these deaths.

4. June 16-18, 2014 Tornadoes

Tornado Damage in Pilger, Nebraska on June 16, 2014

Tornado Damage in Pilger, Nebraska on June 16, 2014

The severe weather event most significantly affected the state of Nebraska, where two twin EF4 tornadoes killed two and injured twenty others in and around the town of Pilger on the evening of June 16. Tornado activity continued on June 17th, with an early morning EF3 tornado causing major damage in Verona, Wisconsin, and an EF2 tornado from the same storm caused damage in residential areas of Madison. Overall, the outbreak resulted in 77 tornadoes, two fatalities, and numerous injuries in the Great Plains and Midwestern United States.

5. Hurricane Arthur

Hurricane Arthuir

Hurricane Arthur off the coast of the Carolinas on July 3, 2014.

Hurricane Arthur is the earliest hurricane to hit North Carolina in a season since records began in 1851.  The previous record was July 11, 1901. It is also the first hurricane to make landfall on the U.S. mainland since Isaac on Aug. 28-29, 2012 and the first Category 2 hurricane in US since Ike 2008. After making landfall on July 3, Arthur continued to the North along the east coast dampening July 4 celebrations an doing an estimate $50 million in damage.

6. Cool Summer 2014

The Midwest experienced a cooler than average summer.

The Midwest experienced a cooler than average summer.

Below average temperatures persisted for the middle portion of the Unites States through the Summer months. While the weather was somewhat cooler than average here, global temperatures were the warmest across global land and ocean surfaces since record keeping began in 1880, edging out the previous record set in 1998.

7. Western Wildfires

The Carlton Complex wildfire burning in north-central Washington state, USA.

The Carlton Complex wildfire burning in north-central Washington state, USA.
By Jason Kriess, SFC, Washington National Guard

With drought and high winds, the West was primed for wildfires this year. Oregon’s Buzzard Complex Fire was the largest in 2014, burning almost 400,000 acres. In Northern California, the Happy Camp Complex fire burned more than 134,000 acres. In Washington, the Carlton Complex Fire burned more than 250,000 acres, becoming the largest in the state’s history. In total, wildfires burned over 3.5 million acres in 2014.

8. Great Lakes Water Levels Rise

09Great Lakes

The longest period on record of abnormally low Great Lakes water levels has ended, but it’s uncertain whether the recovery is temporary or the beginning of a new long-term trend. The slump began in the late 1990s. It continued for 15 years, culminating in December 2012 when Lake Michigan and Lake Huron set low-water records. Since then, levels have sharply rebounded. In September, the levels of all five of the Great Lakes were above average for the first time since the drop-off began.

9. Buffalo Snow

Buffalo Lake effect storm

Buffalo Lake effect storm, November 2014
By Fortunate4now

The Buffalo, New York area may be accustomed to lake effect snow, however a storm dumping over 6 feet of snow with a second storm adding 1 -2 additional feet in November tested the resolve of even the hardiest residents.

10 .California Rain

 Satellite image of the monstrous winter storm that impacted California and the West Coast from December 10 to 13, on December 10, 2014. The flow of the Pineapple Express atmospheric river is highlighted by the yellow arrow. The image has been modified to improve visibility.

Satellite image of the monstrous winter storm that impacted California and the West Coast from December 10 to 13, on December 10, 2014. The flow of the Pineapple Express atmospheric river is highlighted by the yellow arrow. The image has been modified to improve visibility.

In December, heavy rains brought some relief to drought conditions in California.  Nearly a foot of rain fell in some places in a single day. The weather also brought high winds with the rain which resulting in flooding and mudslides.After years of drought, much more rain is still needed to restore depleted reservoir and ground water supplies.

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Volcanoes in Wisconsin

Last week I received an email in which the writer was very concerned about the volcanoes that were appearing in Wisconsin.  She asked my what I knew and how much of a danger these volcanoes posed.  There hasn’t been an active volcano in Wisconsin for almost 2 billion years.  Having one appear in an area that no longer has the underlying geology to support one would indeed be concerning.  More about that in a minute, but first the good news. The volcano of which this individual heard about posed no immediate danger to state residents.  It was an ice volcano.

Ice volcanoes, also known as snow volcanoes or cryovolcanoes if you have a more scientifically oriented vocabulary, occur with relative frequency on Lake Michigan and in Green Bay, where the most recent sitings were located. They also appear in the other Great Lakes and on other bodies of water which are capable of forming ice.

Ice Volcano on Lake Michigan

An ice volcano on the shore of Lake Michigan.
Photo: Lisa A. Lehmann (CC-BY-NC-ND)


Ice volcanoes form when ice gathers near the shore of the lake. Water continues to flow under the ice and is pushed up into cracks and crevices in the ice by waves. The pushed up water freezes on the surface of the ice. This results in a cone shape forming around the gap in the ice.  When water is pushed through this hole, the cone spews water, just like a volcano would spew molten lava. Ice volcanoes can form and disappear in relatively short periods of time.  If conditions are favorable, they can continue to grow taller.

The major danger from an ice volcano would occur to someone climbing on them, as the ice might collapse.  Otherwise, they are one of the many interesting weather related phenomena that the Great Lakes give to us.

Volcanoes in Wisconsin

What we normally think of as a volcano is a mountain or hill, typically conical, having a crater or vent through which lava, rock fragments, hot vapor, and gas are being or have been erupted from the earth’s crust. As has been state, Wisconsin has not had an active volcano in almost 2 billion years.  At this time, volcanoes were common in the central part of the state.

Since volcanoes were common, Wisconsin has undergone a number of major geologic upheavals. Several hundred million years ago, Wisconsin was covered by a shallow sea. After that, parts of the Wisconsin were covered by glaciers.  These events, along with the movement of tectonic plates have left Wisconsin without any volcanoes.

The Closest Active Volcanoes

The closest active volcanoes to Greendale, Wisconsin are Mount Shishaldin, Alaska which is 3,352 miles from here and Kilauea, Hawaii which is 4,271 miles distant.  In addition to these areas, the map below shows other volcanically active areas.  The closest one to Wisconsin is Yellowstone. Currently, none of these present any danger at all to those of us in Wisconsin.

US Volcanoes and Current Activity Status

US Volcanoes and Current Activity Status as of December 22, 2014

See the USGS Hazards Program page for an updated version of this map.

Acknowledgements:  Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, United States Geological Survey.

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Morning fog in Mitchell Park, Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Morning fog in Mitchell Park, Milwaukee, Wisconsin
Photo Credit: Indy Kethdy (

Here in Southeastern Wisconsin we have been in the grips of dense fog for a few days this month.  It is not unusual to have fog here in December.  On average there are 14 days during the month with some fog in this area. Both fog and clouds are formed when water vapor condenses or freezes to form tiny droplets or crystals in the air. Clouds can form at many different altitudes. They can be as high as 12 miles above sea level or as low as the ground. Fog is a kind of cloud that touches the ground. Fog forms when the air near the ground cools enough to turn its water vapor into liquid water or ice.

In this part of Wisconsin, which is near to Lake Michigan, fog often forms when warm air meets the cooler are over the Lake. As Lake Michigan was largely frozen over this past winter, the water has been cooler than usual and has been more conducive to the formation of fog.

Average Number of Days With Dense Fog

Average Number of Days per Year With Dense Fog

Types of Fog

Fogs which are composed entirely or mainly of water droplets are generally classified according to the physical process which produces saturation or near-saturation of the air. The main types of fog are:

Radiation Fog

Radiation Fog

Radiation Fog

This type of fog forms at night under clear skies with calm winds when heat absorbed by the earth’s surface during the day is radiated into space. As the earth’s surface continues to cool, provided a deep enough layer of moist air is present near the ground, the humidity will reach 100% and fog will form. Radiation fog varies in depth from 3 feet to about 1,000 feet and is always found at ground level and usually remains stationary. This type of fog can reduce visibility to near zero at times and make driving very hazardous.

Valley fog is a type of radiation fog that is very common in the mountains of eastern Kentucky. When air along ridgetops and the upper slopes of mountains begins to cool after sunset, the air becomes dense and heavy and begins to drain down into the valley floors below. As the air in the valley floor continues to cool due to radiational cooling, the air becomes saturated and fog forms. Valley fog can be very dense at times and make driving very hazardous due to reduced visibility. This type of fog tends to dissipate very quickly once the sun comes up and starts to evaporate the fog layer.

Advection Fog

Advection Fog

Advection Fog

Advection fog often looks like radiation fog and is also the result of condensation. However, the condensation in this case is caused not by a reduction in surface temperature, but rather by the horizontal movement of warm moist air over a cold surface. This means that advection fog can sometimes be distinguished from radiation fog by its horizontal motion along the ground.

Sea fogs are always advection fogs, because the oceans don’t radiate heat in the same way as land and so never cool sufficiently to produce radiation fog. Fog forms at sea when warm air associated with a warm current drifts over a cold current and condensation takes place. Sometimes such fogs are drawn inland by low pressure, as often occurs on the Pacific coast of North America.

Advection fog may also form when moist maritime, or ocean, air drifts over a cold inland area. This usually happens at night when the temperature of the land drops due to radiational cooling.

Upslope Fog

Upslope Fog

Upslope Fog

Upslope fog forms when light winds push moist air up a hillside or mountainside to a level where the air becomes saturated and condensation occurs. This type of fog usually forms a good distance from the peak of the hill or mountain and covers a large area. Upslope fog occurs in all mountain ranges in North America. This usually occurs during the winter months, when cold air behind a cold front drifts westward and encounters the eastward facing slopes of the Rocky Mountains. As the cold, moist air rises up the slopes of the mountains, condensation occurs and extensive areas of fog form on the lower slopes of the mountains.

Ice Fog

Ice Fog

Ice Fog

This type of fog forms when the air temperature is well below freezing and is composed entirely of tiny ice crystals that are suspended in the air. Ice fog will only be witnessed in cold Arctic / Polar air. Generally the temperature will be 14 F or colder in order for ice fog to occur.

Freezing Fog

Freezing Fog

Freezing Fog

Freezing fog occurs when the water droplets that the fog is composed of are “supercooled”. Supercooled water droplets remain in the liquid state until they come into contact with a surface upon which they can freeze. As a result, any object the freezing fog comes into contact with will become coated with ice. The same thing happens with freezing rain or drizzle.

Evaporation or Mixing Fog

Evaporation Fog

Evaporation Fog

This type of fog forms when sufficient water vapor is added to the air by evaporation and the moist air mixes with cooler, relatively drier air. The two common types are steam fog and frontal fog. Steam fog forms when cold air moves over warm water. When the cool air mixes with the warm moist air over the water, the moist air cools until its humidity reaches 100% and fog forms. This type of fog takes on the appearance of wisps of smoke rising off the surface of the water. The other type of evaporation fog is known as frontal fog. This type of fog forms when warm raindrops evaporate into a cooler drier layer of air near the ground. Once enough rain has evaporated into the layer of cool surface, the humidity of this air reaches 100% and fog forms.

Fog Safety

Automobile Accident in Dense Fog

Automobile Accident in Dense Fog

Dense fog contributed to the worst automobile accident in Wisconsin history. Ten people were killed and nearly 40 more hurt in a massive pileup on Interstate-43 near Cedar Grove on October 11, 2002. The crash was blamed on extremely dense fog and drivers who continued driving at normal speeds. A total of 50 vehicles were involved in the wreck.

There are regular news reports of motorists who are involved in collisions where fog is a contributing factor. Here are some suggestions for safe driving in foggy conditions:

DRIVE WITH LIGHTS on low beam. High beams will only be reflected back off the fog and actually impair visibility even more. Your lights help other drivers see your vehicle, so be sure they all work. Keep your windshield and headlights clean, to reduce the glare and increase visibility.

SLOW DOWN – and watch your speedometer – before you enter a patch of fog. Be sure that you can stop within the distance that you can see. Fog creates a visual illusion of slow motion when you may actually be speeding. Speed is a major factor in fog-related crashes.

WATCH OUT for slow-moving and parked vehicles. Listen for traffic you cannot see. Open your window a little, to hear better.

REDUCE THE DISTRACTIONS in your vehicle. Turn off the radio and cell phone. Your full attention is required.

USE WIPERS AND DEFROSTERS liberally for maximum visibility. Sometimes it is difficult to determine if poor visibility is due to fog or moisture on the windshield.

USE THE RIGHT EDGE of the road or painted road markings as a guide.

BE PATIENT. Avoid passing and/or changing lanes.

SIGNAL TURNS well in advance and brake early as you approach a stop.

DO NOT STOP on a freeway or heavily traveled road. You could become the first link in a chain-reaction collision. If you must pull off the road, signal (people tend to follow tail lights when driving in fog), then carefully pull off as far as possible. After pulling off the road, turn on your hazard flashers(hazard lights should only be used when you pull over to show that you are parked on the side of the road). Move away from the vehicle.

Acknowledgements: NOAA and National Weather Service content was used in preparing this article.


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What Are the Chances of a White Christmas?

Most people like the idea of having a white Christmas. We will get a much better idea for our chances of having snow on the ground on Christmas in a couple of weeks. Until then, we can use historical data to help us determine the likelihood of snow on Christmas.

For most of Wisconsin, the chances are better than about 50%. The challenge of predicting what exactly will happen depends on the weather leading up to Christmas and the conditions on the day itself.  December is definitely winter in Wisconsin.  For December, the normal average high temperature in Milwaukee is 32.8F with an average low of 20.1F.  Those temperature support snow.  Of course, we also have wide ranges of temperatures in December. The warmest day on record is 68F on December, 5, 2001.  Our coldest day on record was -22F on December 19, 1884. In terms of snow, December gives us an average of 10.6″, once again with a wide range including the record snowfall of 49.5″ in 2001.

Christmas day is also variable with a record low of -12F in 1983 and a record high of 61F in 1982.  Snowfall on the ground also covers a wide range.  It’s just hard to tell in any particular year what might happen.

The map below shows the historic probability of there being at least 1-inch of snow on the ground in the Lower 48 states on December 25 based on the latest (1981-2010) U.S. Climate Normals from NOAA’s National Climatic Data Center. Dark gray shows places where the probability is less than 10 percent, while white shows probabilities greater than 90 percent.

Probability of a White Christmas

Probability of a White Christmas

The 1981–2010 Climate Normals are the latest three-decade averages of several climatological measurements. This dataset contains daily and monthly Normals of temperature, precipitation, snowfall, heating and cooling degree days, frost/freeze dates, and growing degree days calculated from observations at approximately 9,800 stations operated by NOAA’s National Weather Service.

Trimborn Farm With Snow on the Ground in Greendale, Wisconsin. Credit:Swirling Snow by Diane Dombrowski

While the map shows the climatological probability that a snow depth of at least one inch will be observed on December 25, the actual conditions this year may vary widely from these probabilities because the weather patterns present will determine the snow on the ground or snowfall on Christmas day. These probabilities are useful as a guide only to show where snow on the ground is more likely. For prediction of your actual weather on Christmas Day, check out your local forecast at

If you would like to keep track of the snowfall across the United States on a daily basis, see the map below or look for the forecast on our Forecasts page at Here, we have forecasts for major cities in Wisconsin.

Current Snow Depth in Wisconsin

Current Snow Depth in Wisconsin

Regardless of how white your Christmas may be, we wish you a Merry one. To those who celebrate other holidays around this time of year, accept our wishes for good tidings of the season.

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Winter Weather Safety

Salt Truck in Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Salt Truck in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
By Michael Pereckas from Milwaukee, WI

This week marks the start of meteorological winter.  Meteorological winter runs from December through February. The temperatures have already plunged and we have seen our first snow.

Winter is more than just snowy scenes. The season contains significant dangers such as blizzards, ice storms, ice jams and freezing temperatures.

Winter hazards can strike before you’re ready. Recently, a raging snowstorm in Buffalo trapped drivers in their cars for 24 hours. Would you be prepared? The past few years have also seen cities like New York, Philadelphia and Washington shut-down by blizzards. Atlanta was reduced to gridlock by a couple inches of snow. If the roads were impassable, could you survive at home for several days?

Preparing for winter isn’t complicated or expensive. While winter is dangerous, a few simple steps can help you and your family stay safe this season. Here is what NOAA’s National Weather Service (NWS) recommends:

Know Your Risk

Blizzards, ice storms and freezing temperatures can be a killer for the unprepared. Make sure that you’re aware of the risk that winter brings. Here’s what you need to know:

  • A few inches of snow or ice can shut down a city and leave you trapped at home for days.
  • Driving on ice and snow-covered roads can lead to car wrecks, injuries and death.
  • Snow, ice and wind associated with winter storms can have a huge impact on travel, infrastructure, schools and businesses.
  • Some winter storms can cover nearly half the nation, affecting tens of millions of people.  Annually, damages from winter storms add up to over $1 billion.
  • Frostbite may develop on exposed skin when temperatures are below freezing. Add wind to below freezing temperatures and frostbite can set in even quicker.
  • Other winter dangers include hypothermia and avalanches.
  • Flooding is also possible due to snowmelt, ice jams and coastal storms such as Nor’easters.

Take Action

While the weather outside might be frightful, it doesn’t mean that you’re powerless. Prepare for winter with these simple steps:

  • Before you go out, check the forecast at to make sure you’re prepared for the elements. Follow NWS on Twitter and Facebook to stay up to date with the latest weather news
  • At home: have an Emergency Preparedness Kit with three days of food, water, prescription medications and other supplies.
  • Make sure your cell phone is fully charged when a storm is approaching and also anytime you’re planning to leave the house. It could become your life-line should disaster strike.
  • In your car: make sure you have food, water and blankets in your trunk. Stay off the road when advised to do so by local authorities.
  • Dress for the season: wear loose, warm clothing in layers.
  • Don’t forget your pets! Keep them inside during cold weather.
  • During and after the storm: never use a generator or kerosene heater indoors – carbon monoxide poisoning is a silent killer.
  • After the storm: take breaks when shoveling snow and stay clear of downed power lines.
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